New Zealand is a country in the southwest Pacific. At 268,021 square kilometres, it is slightly bigger than Britain, but its population of five million is less than 10 per cent that of the UK. The country is comprised of two main landmasses, the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) and the South Island (Te Waipounamu), plus seven hundred smaller islands. The North and the South Island are separated by a 22.5 kilometre stretch of water called Cook Strait. Most people live on the former, which is the location of the nation’s capital Wellington, and its most populous city, Auckland.
Māori culture is integral to New Zealand, which was discovered and settled by Polynesians between 1320 and 1350. According to Māori mythology, the demigod Maui and his brothers caught a fish and chopped it up, forming Aotearoa, or New Zealand. The first European explorer known to visit was Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1642. English explorer James Cook mapped New Zealand in 1769.
In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of Britain and various Māori chiefs, bringing New Zealand into the British Empire. It seemed like a good deal, but the British began to bend the rules. Disputes followed and a series of wars resulted in the British acquiring more and more Māori land.
From the 1890s on, the New Zealand parliament seemed progressive, enacting a number of laws, notably on women’s suffrage. In 1893 New Zealand became the first nation in the world where all women had the right to vote. The country became self-governing in 1907, but remained a member of the British Empire, fighting alongside the British in both World Wars. From the 1930s, an extensive welfare state was developed.
In the 1950s, Māori culture underwent a renaissance, and a powerful protest movement formed. This led, eventually, to greater recognition of the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi in the late 20th century. Today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is dedicated to politics rooted in compassion and cooperation. Five parties currently have representatives in parliament, including the Māori Party.
As an island nation, far from everywhere, New Zealand is free from many pests and animal diseases found elsewhere in the world. The country has glaciers and fjords and volcanic plateaus, plus endemic flora and fauna that have evolved in near isolation from the rest of the world. New Zealand’s South Island is particularly beautiful, with beaches and rainforests bordering snow-capped mountains. Native animal species include the kiwi bird — a ‘kiwi’ is a nickname for someone from the country — the New Zealand sea lion, and little blue penguins. The silver fern tree, a leaf of which features on many sports teams’ logos, is a tree native to New Zealand.
Until recently, the biggest threat to New Zealand’s security was natural disasters. New Zealand forms part of a belt of volcanoes and earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean, and experiences many small earthquakes. In 2011, a major earthquake occurred in Christchurch on the South Island. It caused widespread damage and killed 185 people. In 2019, twenty-two people were killed when the volcano erupted on Whakaari (White Island) in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty region.
Down to Earth
While the average cost of living in New Zealand is high, the country’s residents enjoy enviable standards of wellbeing, including health, income, environmental quality, education and jobs. One national custom is to go barefoot, meaning in Māori culture that you are connected with nature. The country is famous for its dairies, or ‘cornershops’, the quality of its meat and seafood, and its excellent wine. The Māori hāngī is a traditional style of cooking, where chicken, pork and mutton plus pumpkin, potato and kumara (sweet potato) are cooked underground.
Rugby was introduced to New Zealand in the 1870s. The Original All Blacks were the first New Zealand national rugby team to tour outside Australasia in 1905. The origins of the name ‘All Blacks’ is likely to have been popularised by the dark-coloured strip they wore, and it was also on this tour that the All Blacks first performed a choreographed ‘Ka Mate’ haka before matches. A haka is a traditional dance of the Māori people. Used on the battlefield to prepare warriors mentally and physically for battle, it is also performed when groups come together in peace. The ‘Ka Mate’ haka is actually more of a celebration than a threat. According to legend, the Māori chief Te Rauparaha composed it in 1810 to commemorate a fortunate escape: chased by his enemies, the chief hid in a food-storage pit under a woman’s skirt! When he emerged, another friendly chief helped him out. Te Rauparaha performed the haka to show his gratitude and respect.